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Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Jo Kondo, Syzygia, Snow's Falling, Craig Pepples, Pine Cones Fall, Paul Zukofsky

In the world of present-day High Modernism, it is true that there is a great deal of leeway around how a composer might proceed. There is a wider spectrum of possibilities one might address without generating some official or unofficial disapproval. The Dodecaphonic dogma days have been gone for a rather long while and though much excellent music was produced out of that working vision, there are other ways one can go of course, then and now. And happily there is no shortage of really interesting music to be heard today, as I mentioned in yesterday's posting.

An especially attractive offering just come to my attention is a three-work CD (CP2 CP 125) directed and conducted by New Music adept Paul Zukofsky, recorded in 2016, in the year before he left our world. It is music with a pronounced ambiance, a soundful stillness born out of the processes of nature, the reflections on life in-between the living of it, a perspective on the Zen of "suchness" perhaps. Harmonically the music is well within the Modern zone, without an insistent tonality, yet not especially dissonant. If you thought about it, if you listened hard enough you might establish a key center in your head, yet this is not music that is particularly tonal in some typical sense.

If you thought of Morton Feldman's classical music phases you might have some idea of this music, yet it is not directly derivable from this way of going forth. So that is only a rough idea of what you might imagine this music as.

So to the music itself, then. Jo Kondo gives us two of his compositions and they are both really worthwhile. "Syzygia" is performed nicely by a small chamber orchestra configuration handled well by Ensemble Nomad. It is a near atonal chorale sort of sound, ever wafting new combinations of tones and pronounced wind timbral transformations that are almost lyrical in their confluence. That is, if you are listening with an expanded New Music set of ears.

Jo Kondo's "Snow's Falling" gives us a long meditative sprawl of natural expanded gentle endlessness, thanks to The Tokyo Philharmonic Chorus and pianist Satoko Inoue.

Craig Pepples brings up the middle of the program with Ensemble Nomad sounding his "Pine Cones Fall," like the other works a highly evocative ambient sculpture in slow motion, but in this case adding a near-pointillism of give-and-take between each instrument. Everything winds out as a natural growth, paceless dream, every instrument sounding its part in groups ever shifting. It is beautifully mesmerizing.

Paul Zukofsky with his dedicated focus on these three works reminds us how central a figure he was. I cannot imagine a more moving performance of these pieces. The renderings are seemingly as poetically executed as they were meant to sound. It is a masterful outing, in every way palpable in its peaceful yet insistent singularity. It reminds us that New Music can still be was "new" as it should be, that there can be a joy in the sheer viscous pleasure of the present-in-future, in the visceral presence of the hearing of it.

For you unabashed Modernists out there, and even those who are not quite sure but ready for something different, I give you my highest recommendation for this one. It is some awesome music.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Rory Cowal, Clusters, American Piano Explorations

Sometimes the world seems far from ideal these days, in terms of a breeding ground for the new, for the musical, for the creative. And over here in the US, perhaps on some levels things are even farther from perfection than they have been in some time. Yet new music, new recordings are continuing to come out, thankfully. And there is no shortage of good ones.

Today we have a chance to talk a little about the recent anthology album Clusters: American Piano Explorations (New World Records 80800-2). It consists of eight compositions for solo piano by seven American composers, played by pianist Rory Cowal. The period covered is fairly long, 1931-2018, or in other words much of the Modern Period. The works are either unheard or little known, or only now just written, with the "ink" still perhaps a bit damp. All in some way exemplify the kind of local iconoclasm of the titular Father of Modern American Piano Music, Charles Ives, though none sound exactly like they were written with his model in mind, as much as he might have had one. The composers here are determined to go their own way and they do.

There is a common thread to this music that seem best served by the subtitle term "explorations." That does not mean that the music was composed according to some set paradigm then current, or for that matter now-current. All undoubtedly are Modern in the sense of being melodically and-or harmonically less classical in some old-Europe way, though the influence may never be entirely absent as an assumption. But then "Jazz" might also be assumed at least some of the time. Some are a bit on the edgy side, some kind of home-spun without being self-consciously so. All are waywardly themselves, not orthodox in some channeled typicality. And expression seems upper-most on the agenda in this music. Nicely so.

So first off I am happy that the title work "Clusters" starts off the program. It's from 1931/36, in six short movements, written by Johanna Magdalena Beyer (1888-1944). It is confident music, well determined to be exploratory. But who is this? The liners tell us. "Clusters" was brought out of obscurity by Rory. He gave maybe only the second known performance of it in 2013. Beyer was an accomplished pianist who wrote a few piano suites and individual piano works we should probably hear all of. She was friend and pupil of the illustrious Henry Cowell, from whom she took the idea of complex dissonant simultaneities, "clusters." Nice.

I am very happy the anthology contains works by two pianists-composers who have been key figures in "Avant Jazz," namely Muhal Richard Abrams (1930-2017) and Kris Davis (b. 1980), the former the AACM giant, the latter emerging on the scene right now and a little before now.  Abrams' "Etudes Op. 1, No. 1" (2000) and Davis's "Eight Pieces for the Vernal Equinox" (2018) are well worth hearing and hearing, performed with dedication by Rory Cowal.

The same can be said for James Tenney's very brief "Variations in A (on a theme by my father)" (1955).

By the same token, all of this music seems pretty essential, far from superfluous. All of it is engaging and well-presented. And that includes additional works by Thomas Peterson (1931-2006), Daniel Goode (b. 1936), and two by David Mahler (b. 1944).

Everything is valuable and has the freshness of the unheard-by-most-of-us, perhaps all of us. There is not a note wasted. And Rory Cowal chooses well, then comes through with committed poetics. Bravo! Hear this. Do it. No fear.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Bach, Christmas Oratorio, Bachchor Mainz, Bachorchester Mainz, Ralf Otto

Johann Sebastian Bach may be an unearthly figure, one of music's true titans. The longer I live the more I feel this way. Yet in some ways he is like all other composers. It may be rather obvious but as wonderful as his music is the quality of any given performance will help determine how you feel about his music. For years I have listened to his Christmas Oratorio in versions that were respectable but it turns out not exactly inspired. As a result I've mostly looked to his St. Matthew Passion as something on the very highest levels of inspiration in the large-scale solo-choir-orchestra mode. Yet a couple of weeks ago I had the good fortune of receiving a new version of the Christmas Oratorio (Naxos 8.574001-02) by some fine soloists, the Bachchor Mainz and the Bachorchester Mainz, all under the direction of Ralf Otto.

As soon as I heard the really peppy opening Jauchzet frohlocket with its timpani blazing, I knew I was in a superior presence, I knew this version was special. And it is. They revel in the lyrical tangibility of the arias, with soloist and normally some instrument winding a counterline alongside and underneath with detailed sonority and emphasis, the tutti sections with full choir and orchestra really rousing and on-target. This rendition clearly relishes the musical content and gives it special care, which is much more than what I can say for the versions I have lived with so long. It does for the Oratorio what Mogens Woldike did for me with the St Matthew so long ago (and continues to do). Otto's interpretation scarifies the music. It lets nothing insignificant pass without careful consideration and airing. And of course there is very little in this music that might be considered insignificant.

One might quibble that parts of this Oratorio appeared before in his Cantatas. So? Are his Cantatas somehow inferior? But I do not try to put up a straw man here as much as refute what occasionally has crossed my mind in listening to lesser versions of this work. All that is in the past now, pretty much, because this version gives to the music all that I might wish it have. Everything fits nicely on two CDs and at the Naxos price, you do not have to go broke to own it. A real value is this one. And I am very happy to have the performances. They are to me a new benchmark. This version will doubtless take over in my Christmas listening cycle going forward. So I highly recommend it to you. Do not hesitate.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Franz Lachner, Symphony No. 3, Evergreen Symphony Orchestra, Gernot Schmalfuss

Theoretically there can be no end to the number of music-makers, the number of composers we can hear in our lifetime.  The only limitation is the finite length of a life and the finite number of opportunities there might be to hear unfamiliar music. Now happens to be a pretty good time to explore. And so I have been drinking rather heartily at the well of the unknown. And I try and report in as always.

So this morning I bring to you another composer I at least have not heard before. It is Franz Lachner (1803-1890).  Now who is that? The liners to the CD at hand this morning tell us that during his lifetime he was at the very center of a lively controversy in the German-Speaking world. It all started in 1835 when Lachner's 5th Symphony was chosen by Concerts spirituels as the best among 57 symphonies submitted for a competition for the best unperformed new symphonic work. After its premiere one journalist praised it, calling it poetic, but Schumann (then a prominent music critic) retorted, characterizing it essentially as style-less and bloated.  A journalistic battle royale ensued between virtually all-and-sundry musical spokesmen of note in the German speaking world. The music public greeted the Lachner's Fifth with the clamor they had given for Beethoven's Ninth and a recent Spohr symphony, according to the liners.

Fast forward ahead to today, where most of us know nothing of the hubbub on Lachner's 5th that seemed so central then. Franz Lachner is not someone we include in the standard repertoire these days. In fact his music has sunk into a true obscurity.  I myself have never come across his music at all until now.

So we have the chance to consider him with a new CD at hand, a recording of his Symphony No. 3 (CPO 555081-2) (op. 41 in D minor), as performed by the Evergreen Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Gernot Schmalfuss. The most obvious thing to note is that the 3rd with four movements each lasting over ten minutes in this performance was pretty long for its time period. It does go on. The music does not seem at all "bloated" however. It is well constructed, perhaps not as thematically stunning as some other, more familiar works of its time. But then as you listen a few times it is in no way aimless. With often a pretty dominant string presence it is not especially daring orchestrationally, in the way the parts are apportioned. That of course was a critique we might still hear about the symphonies of Schumann himself. In neither Lachner's case here nor in Schumann's case does that bother me. And there are enough spells in this Lachner 3rd where the winds have enough of a say that it is not unrelenting.

Some of the contrapuntal passages in the second, scherzo movement to me are compelling. And there is a Beethovinian-Brahmsian bravura fanfare kind of aura that one cannot say is unpleasant, far from it.

Added to the program is Lachner's fairly brief "Festouverture in Es-Dur" to conclude things. It ends in the version here with the present-day German national anthem (there is another version that ends elsewise). All fine and dandy and well done. Papa Haydn incorporated this melody, ,the then-Austrian national anthem, into a string quartet so there is a precedent. .

At any rate one comes away from this quite decently performed program with the feeling that Lachner deserves a hearing. He is not in any way inferior as a craftsman. The questions will be for you, will you like the music? I like it just fine. It does not yet strike me thematically like some of its contemporary parallels, but then I may need to live with it a while longer.

Surely anyone interested in the post-Beethovinian 19th-century musical climate should hear this recording and learn something. Perhaps with a few listens you will come to love this music. It is not unlovable! Recommended.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Ann Southam, Soundspinning, Christina Petrowska Quilico

The late (and I would add great) Canadian Minimalist Ann Southam (1937-2010) has not exactly become a household name, not at least here in the States, but that should never stop those who love music. In the last decade I have been happy to discover a number of recordings of her compositions (type her name in the search box above, left, for reviews of those I have first heard while writing this column.)

And to my happiness there is another volume of her piano music to hear, namely Soundspinning (Centredisques 26018), featuring Christina Petrowska Quilico and her sympathetic and idiomatic pianism. There are series of miniatures to be heard on this program, many most mesmerizing and singular in their clustering of motility,  not typically repetitive in ways of some of the standard classical Minimalists. In other words these show some somewhat different sides of the Southam originality  They are other glimpses at the Southam way.

So there are the sort of clusterbomb dervishes that spin past our ears in the first part of the program. And then there are the series of short pieces with "blue" in the titles, which delve into blues-rock-jazz realms without being in any way direct lifts of the genre staples.

If you do not know Southam's music at all, check my other CD reviews of her music in this column by typing her name in the search box above. You might be better served by starting with one of them first. Those who already know the earlier examples will nevertheless find this one illuminating and worthwhile. Maestro Southam is gone but most assuredly NOT forgotten. She was an original and her music still sounds great. So check her out. And hear this one for sure.

Charpentier, Les Arts Florissans, Ensemble Marguerite Louise, Gaetan Jarry

Time rolls on as always. Meanwhile the French Baroque keeps calling to me and I respond! Really good period performances are out there lately and I will bring them to you as I get to hear them. Today we turn to the potent and poetic composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1663-1704). We contemplate a major operatic work, a five-scene allegorical divertissement meant to celebrate Louis XIVth's reign, of territorial expansion and things that patrons generally foot the bill for in those days. And so we have Les Arts Florissans and a brief related work L'Couronne de fleurs. We hear both works in ideal performances by the Ensemble Marguerite Louis under the very capable direction of Gaetan Jarry as part of the Chateau de Versailles Spectacles series released on the Chateau de Versailles label (release 001).

In this excellent program of both works we get all the reasons why the French Baroque in general and Charpentier in particular are a thing apart. This music has a sweetness not ordinarily a typical part of the Baroque. There is lyrical heft, which period performances bring out well in part for the string sonarity the way it is meant to sound, but also in this case the winds and their plaintive melodiousness. Then in a performance such as this, the vocalists too have a genuine warmth that goes with the entire ambiance. Soloists and small choral group alike sound as angelic as they should.

The quality of the invention too is of the highest order. Without that we would have sweet trifles, confection without nutritive value. Not here. This is not an extraordinarily contrapuntal music, and that is true in many ways of the entire French Baraque, as I remark the other day in my review of the Lully Effect (see that review in the index). Yet it is there in the continuo certainly, the bass lines especially, and at times in the vocal parts. This does not have the incredible contrapuntal brilliance of a Bach. But it makes up for that with an immediacy of melody line and a productively lyrical intensity we respond to all quite willingly and happily, or I do anyway. It is music of definite substance.

One would find fault with these performances with great difficulty. The music sounds as great as it is, as poignant in the delivery as in its latency as written score. This is what Charpentier should sound like. And what that is certainly makes for a most exciting and lovely musical excursion. Brilliant! Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Michael Finnissy, Six Sexy Minuets Three Trios, etc, Kreutzer Quartet, Linda Merrick

One of the real joys of hearing most all the new Metier releases is getting the chance to explore many releases in their ongoing series on the music of Michael Finnissy. And the latest release has me smiling ear-to-ear because the music is especially good. I speak of the album of chamber music called Six Sexy Minuets Three Trios and Other Works (Metier 28581).

It is a nicely performed set of a couple of miniature gems and three major chamber offerings. The latter consist of the title work, plus "Civilization" and "Clarinetten-Liederkreis." From the opening bars of "Civilization," we are in the presence of a very Neo-High-Modern, Neo-Classical; or even Neo-Early sensibility. And the rhythmic strikingness of the first movement reminds us that Finnissy has neither ignored the Neo-Classical Stravinsky nor has he chosen to follow in his footsteps in any obvious way. Like Stravinsky there is an irresistible rhythmic drive yet is is all Finnissy, all the way.

The Kreutzer Quartet with Linda Merrick joining for one work on clarinet have a real feel for, a real understanding of the quirky, funny yet very serious way of this music. The moods vary in many ways throughout. And so in a way the old idea of a portrayal of the "four humors" in art is not entirely out of place, though perhaps not intended exactly either. The ghost of Papa Haydn and even Henry Purcell and John Dowland is not all that far. You feel they might be listening, asking thsemvlces, "what is this fellow up to?"And in the end you walk away from this program with a distinct feeling that Michael Finnissy is one of our living greats, that no one precisely has his expressive
referentiality, his ability to point backwards and in so doing pointing forwards because the pointing is multi-directional and entirely idiomatic to self.

Listen to the six brilliant movements of "Civilization," the pithy, startling mix of early and late on "Contrapunctus XIX," the refreshingly moody and tart "Clarinetten-Liederkreis," the romping, slightly unhinged "Mad Men in the Sand," the hauntingly wry, reflective and avant-brio "Six Sexy Minuets Three Trios" and you will find yourself on unique turf. Finnissy manages to get some of the string wielding ways of earlier chamber music evoked but yet with the unabashed adventurism of the 'future" as it were.

I am happy to say that (to me) this album stands out as a triumph in the chamber arts of Modernity today. Finnissy is a true voice of our times. These are some superb examples of why it is a fine thing to be alive and greet the morning with a little hope. We will end up leaving some good things behind for others to appreciate after we all are gone. I would venture to say that this music may well be remembered long after some other, less happy things are forgotten.

Strongly recommended to all who wish to embrace the Modernism of now.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Weinberg, Symphony No. 13, Serenade for Orchestra, Siberian State Symphony Orchestra, Vladimir Lande

If there were ever two sides to Mieczyslaw Weinberg the composer (1919-1996) (and there were) you can hear it on the new release of two World Premier recordings, that of the Symphony No. 13 and the Serenade for Orchestra No. 4 (Naxos 8.573879). The Naxos series of Weinberg orchestral works continues, very happily, as the Siberian State Symphony under the ever-productive and even inspired Vladimir Lande chalk up a very nice performance of one of Weinberg's most dramatic scores (the 13th) and then one of his most sunshine-drenched ones (the Serenade).

I won't rehearse his biography here. Look that up. He had plenty of reasons to be unhappy with his lot. But the 13th is a profound channeling of what sounds like despair, 1976-style. Lande and company give it all the torque and aesthetically deflected passion it demands. And it becomes one of Weinberg's most captivating scores in their hands. It is more evidence that the Weinberg revival is one of the most exciting ones in our time. "Revival" is maybe inaccurate. "Vival?"

The liners tell us that the 13th is dedicated by Weinberg to the memory of his mother, who died in a Polish camp along with his father and sister in the early '40s. (They were Jews at a time when in Poland that was a crime.) Add to that the death of his friend and supporter Shostakovitch not long before he wrote this symphony. If the mood is downcast, there is a noble dignity in his cry to the high heavens, a sublimity of expression that transcends all of it, and here on a rainy Monday morning after the end of Daylight Savings Time in the US, it is sounding very good to me indeed. I will not attempt to describe the music here, for it must be heard repeatedly a few times before it all comes into focus and so that truly is the way to go forward in understanding. It sounds very Modern, very Weinbergian. And it is in every way a worthwhile work in the Weinberg canon.

On the opposite end is the concluding Serenade, which shifts into a most lighthearted mood. The Naxos back cover blurb calls it "rumbustious!" Well maybe so. It is markedly chipper yet reflective, something no doubt that might get performances in the world Weinberg occupied in 1952, a Stalin ruled,  social realist kind of place. So it is a perhaps ironic yet a fitting way to end because ends on a hopeful note and we still hear Weinberg's inventive brilliance at play.

This one is a most welcome gem in the Naxos Weinberg series. You cannot go wrong at this price. And everybody should give Weinberg a hearing. This is a good place to start. Or too a great place to continue. Bravo!

Friday, November 2, 2018

Franz Schreker, The Birthday of the Infanta - Suite, and Other Works, Jo Ann Falletta

We can try but we cannot completely put ourselves in the mindset of another time and place. So the idea that Franz Schreker (1878-1934) was in his day as well-known for his operas as Richard Strauss is startling but then, face it, it is an indication of the total if perhaps momentary later victory of Modernism that Schreker is no longer remembered and even Strauss himself is no longer quite what he might have been 70 years ago.  For in the end neither could be considered as a Modernist teleology-figure, a cornerstone in the narrative of the Modernist foundation.

In the end all that does not matter in some argument-ending way. We can look and find many composers who may not have contributed directly to the Modernist end-zone celebrations that were so completely convincing in the mid-1960s of last century. And we know today perhaps that no style will ever wipe out what went before, nor should it. And so we can listen to Schreker without thereby buying into any sort of future whatsoever.  Schreker's fate we must also point out was tainted by the rise of the Nazi "degenerate" ban that became a tragic roadblock for so many Austro-German composers of the day, indeed most. Schreker was blacklisted. He did not live to see the end of the fascist movement. And his reputation suffered as a consequence.

We have plenty to absorb in a new program of Schreker orchestral fare, The Birth of the Enfanta - Suite and other works (Naxos 8.573821) as very effectively performed by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra (Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin) conducted by JoAnn Falletta. There are three works at hand in this program. And between the three we get a good idea of how inventive a melodist and how sure an orchestrationist was Schreker.

His 1914 "Vorspiel zu einem Drama" is a cogent 20-minute slab of music, a concert overture to go with his then-celebrated opera Die Gezeichneten. We gather from this, along with the 1923 title Suite "Birth of the Infanta" and the earlier, 1903 "Romantische Suite" a Schreker of Romantic-chromatic originality. We look in vain for the seeds of a Webern or a Schoenberg, but then that is no longer a necessary prerequisite for appreciating an early-Modern-period voice!

What is interesting perhaps listening to these fine performances is what Schreker is NOT. He does not sound like Bruckner or Mahler, not even so obviously does he channel the influence of Wagner. For these reasons and for the high spirits of the performances (which we have come to expect when Ms. Falletta is involved) I do not hesitate to recommend this album. Anyone with an interest in the Austro-German Modern scene and the bubbling of the new century 100 years ago will learn from this. And it is a very happy listen!

Thursday, November 1, 2018

John Harbison, Requiem, Giancarlo Guerrero, Nashville Symphony Chorus and Orchestra

John Harbison (b.1938), most everyone will know, was one of the prominent American composers of the last "unchallenged" wave of High Modernism. I mean that he was more or less the last group of High Modernists who came onto the scene when that style of music was ascendant and unquestioned as the stylistically dominant force. Today of course we live in a time of pluralistic proliferation, where no one style commands contemporary authority.

The current music by Harbison as we experience it in the recent release of his Requiem (Naxos 8.559841) has something of the old High Modernist roots to it but also a kind of chromatic Tonal dramatic Quasi-Romantic emotive Expressiveness to it. It is meant as a work that takes into account some of the tumult of the times, notably the world as we experience it from 9-11 on. And the Requiem Latin tradition contrapuntally and otherwise can be detected as a thorough flavoring of the whole.

So it is a most ambitious work. After five hearings it does not jump out at me. It is very well written. The chorus and orchestra are commanding, though every singer has it seems a bit more vibrato than I would like to hear in this sort of Modernity, both the choir and the soloists.  And so that is a matter of personal taste I suppose. There are moments here that sound a little closer to Berlioz than Mozart, and I suppose that fits with the wide arc of contemporary events of a tragic sort that the music no doubt reflects.

Harbison began thinking of the work in 1965, and off-and-on composed parts of it until 2001, when a commission from the Boston Symphony Orchestra allowed him to cull together the pieces of the work and seriously realize the actual shape of the music as we now know it. The text incorporates the Latin Mass, plus some other material, such as an old Medieval poem with an archaic quality. He took all that he had thought of over the years and set out in earnest to flesh out the entire work as a full presence from September 2001 to March 2002. Of course this was the time of 9-11 and its aftermath. But too Harbison over the 15 years of its initial gestation had added names of people that touched his life and had died during that period, so it is a feeling of personal loss that guided his musical thrust as much as collective feelings of loss coming out of his time frame of final completion and reworking.

So we hear the work today, as it took final form in March of 2002. There is some close to an hour of performance time, and it is is in two parts. Soloists, chorus and orchestra interact thoroughly throughout. As I am working though my sixth listen while writing this, I hear the notes and appreciate the inventive choices the composer has made. And the orchestra sounds quite appropriate.  The soloists and chorus are suitably dramatic. So what is wrong? It all comes across as a work of a very moving sort. But I feel vaguely unsatisfied. That does not mean I am somehow objectively infallible! I've listened, for example. to Beethoven's "Missa solemnis" very many times and somehow it has alluded me, it has never quite clicked with me as opposed to most all of his other works. I find myself wondering if the same is not going to be the case with Harbison's "Requiem?"

In each case I recognize that there is some great music here. And with the Harbison it is possible that I would take to it in another reading? I cannot say.

I will not say I do not recommend this CD. Anyone who likes Harbison should hear this and decide for self. It is substantial. It is a monument or a memory stone of the times. I am glad to have it. I may end up liking it a lot. I cannot say that now. There are some thrilling passages. And some things do not quite get to me yet. It does not seem to grab me all that much. C'est la vie.